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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 7-7-23 – PA Governors School for the Arts 1982

“We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all.” - John Hughes, The Breakfast Club

My pathway in life has a lot of twists, turns and a few blind curves and cul-de-sacs. When I was young, I was a bit of a misfit. I was a small, sensitive, and creative kid who did not quite fit the molds of what a kid was supposed to be like in my hometown. I read books and did not play sports. The educational system felt stifling, confirmative, and unchallenging to me. I loved to learn, but I hated school. Fortunately, I found a tribe where I belonged in the theatre. I thought it would be my future. I found creativity and purpose in those early years.

Being involved in live productions was one of the only places I felt at home. I met people like me. I loved it and spent a lot of time above or behind the stage designing lights, sets and running shows. I met a diverse group of creative people who inspired me. I learned to bring together lots of moving parts so that they formed a whole. I resolved in this era in my life to pursue a career in production. To be a roadie or a lighting and sound guy. This is where I also learned to improvise when something goes wrong, which can be counted on in any production. You often had to think on your feet. Skills I still use in my life. It also fit in with my other “interests.”

I can’t recall who told me about the Pennsylvania Governors School of the Arts (PGSA). I suspect it was an English teacher at my high school, Dale Kehler, an educator who helped me a lot through my difficult high school years. According to the linked wiki site, PGSA was the earliest of the PA schools of excellence, established in 1973 by Governor Milton Shapp and run by a man named Arthur Gatty. Entrance to the school was competitive for high school aged kids. Those who were accepted got to go to the five-week summer school with other creative kids from around the state. The program was divided up into programs focused on music, dance, theater, creative writing, and the visual arts.

It is an era of my life where I never really fully applied myself to much of anything. I was in full coast mode. Yet, I did put an honest effort into my application to PGSA. It was a binder portfolio (I still have) of work I did in the theater up to that point. The application was a multiple stage process. I recall that I had to go to an interview at Wilkes College in the early months of 82. I was surprised when I got in. It was exciting and a powerful lesson in applying myself to something I cared about. It was an opportunity that would never have presented itself to me in any other way.

In the summer of 1982, I attended the school with all these other creative misfits from across the state of Pennsylvania. The summer stands out to many of us as definitive. I have friends that I met there who I am still connected with, and others I hope to see face to face if ever I had the opportunity to do so. Many of us feel like it was one of the best experiences of our lives. It shaped the trajectory of who we became as adults.

In the years immediately following that summer, my life rapidly fell apart. Addiction (that other interest was drugs) really took hold. Use of drugs pushed everything else out. It really did not take long at all. While other kids in my high school class went to college and pursued dreams, I was stuck in my own little hell. I had no dreams and saw little beyond my immediate circumstance. My addiction story is relatively mundane compared to some others, but it was my purgatory. In that time, one of the things that gnawed at me was the PGSA experience and the sense that I could apply myself somehow and have a place in this world. It was part of what pulled me into recovery. Honestly, looking back, I am not sure I would have made the attempt to get into recovery had it not been for the PGSA program.

Obviously, I did not pursue a life in the arts. My life took a very different direction. Today, I write, train, and facilitate a lot of different things here in PA and around the nation focused on addiction recovery and related matters. I am an educator at a university. I have testified to the US Senate on addiction and older adults and in our State House Human Services Committee on behalf of the need to invest in care for young people. My trajectory to those accomplishments runs through the PGSA program. A cheap investment in a young life that paid dividends. A program that invested in kids like me. It brought us together and helped us find in ourselves that helped us see ways we could pursue our dreams.

There were seeds planted in 82 that helped me make it through some dark years. Essentially, the program helped me see that good things were possible with effort. I saw that there was a world in which striving for goals yielded results. As I noted, those five weeks had long-term benefits for many of us who attended. We should be thinking about how to provide more opportunities like that moving forward for our youth. I am grateful for the staff of that program I attended over 40 years ago who made it so special and to the other kids, some of whom became lifelong friends.

What are you grateful for today?

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